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The college decision isn't the most important of your teen's life. Credit: Stuart Miles via

The college decision isn’t the most important of your teen’s life.
Credit: Stuart Miles via

I have some thoughts on the college process that have come from years of working with teens.  I have watched, supported and counseled many teens for various reasons while they are simultaneously applying for universities during their senior year of high school, or after their sophomore year at junior college.  The process is so stressful, and comes with an incredible amount of pressure.  They come to therapy to get help coping with extreme stress.


Once Spring Semester rolls around I have had the privilege of walking alongside them as they are accepted to schools.  I have helped teens feel dignity in attending their back-up school when they were not accepted to their dream school.  I have counseled countless adolescents through fears and anxieties about separating from their families as they go off to school.


The main thing I want to stress to you parents is that senior year is tumultuous.  It is supposed to be a fun culmination to 13 years of hard work through elementary, middle and high school.  Instead it ends up feeling like it’s the make or break point of their entire life.


With that introduction providing context, here are my thoughts on the college process:

1.  Your value as a human is not defined by the name of your university. Your value as a human is defined by God, family, your character, and your ability to realize your dreams.  There is an intense overfocus on the status of a school.  Does anyone really stop and ask whether the quality of the education varies that much between one school and the next?  It has more to do with individual professors, and it has to do with how involved your child chooses to become.

2.  Cost IS a factor.  You are in no way a bad parent if you have the cost of a school as one of the main deciding factors in where you allow your child to attend school.  If anything, taking out massive amounts of loans and/or paying an extra $25,000 per year just because your EIGHTEEN year old thinks they will be happier out of state or at a private school teaches your child a dangerous lesson of entitlement.  On the other hand, if you restrict their options based on cost, you teach them that making smart choices with money helps them get ahead.  You also teach them the difference between a want and a need.

3. There is no shame in junior college.  I started at a top notch school.  I did well academically but I really struggled with the transition socially.  I came home for a year and went to junior college.  Then I transferred to a four year school.  I still finished my bachelor’s degree at age 20 (in 3 years instead of 4).  I will honestly tell you that two of the three best classes I ever took during my undergraduate education were in the junior college.  There are some incredible educators at that level.  Oftentimes they choose to work in that environment because they just want to teach, they don’t want to do research.  Also, my classes never had more than 30.  At the university many of my classes had between 50 and 250 students in them.

4. College is not a vacation.  So often our teens visit a certain campus, like it, and then decide that is THE place they need to attend school.  Realistically though what the campus looks like has very little to do with how much it will help your teenager in his or her chosen profession.  Once you and your teenager carefully analyze the marketplace, choose a degree that is in demand, which also peaks their interest (They may love musical theater, but there isn’t a demand for musical theater majors).  Make a school choice based on this.


The reason I write all this to you is that I watch adolescents and parents become completely overwhelmed, stressed and nearly crazy over the college decision.  If you’re methodical you can help your teen feel a lot less stress.  You will all make smart choices.  You get the chance to teach your teenager about delayed gratification, planning, finances, and increasing independence.  If you do this the wrong way you might just help them accidentally learn that prestige is more important than being sensible, and also increase their sense of entitlement.


Helping teens grow and families improve connection,

Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT